Second Thoughts about ‘The Passion’

My current theory is that Christians and Jews see two different films when they watch Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” For example, when Satan slithered through the crowd, I saw nothing objectionable.

It’s conventional Christian theology that the temptation to do evil (or Satan himself) is everywhere. But many Jews saw Satan acting through a specifically Jewish gathering, yet another in a long line of Christian libels. For Jews, this film was very close to the traditional passion play so often used to incite anti-Semitic violence. Jews also noticed that when God becomes angry at the killing of Jesus, he doesn’t wreak havoc on the Roman forum or Pilate’s house. He doesn’t even confine the damage to Herod’s palace and Caiaphas’s house. He destroys the temple.

Jews don’t understand why Christians don’t seem to get this. They tend to think that Christians are either blind to the movie’s message, or insensitive to the feelings of Jews. I don’t think that’s it. I think the emotional impact of this film was so powerful that it tended to blot out concerns about history, accuracy and blame.

These concerns dominated among intellectuals and media types. But ordinary Christians were so overwhelmed by the film that they didn’t much want to involve themselves in yet another debate about whether a few Jews or a few Romans were mostly responsible for killing Jesus. This was the first movie, available to a mass audience, that powerfully portrayed the scope of Jesus’s sacrifice and what it means for the way Christians lead their own lives. That’s why so many came out of the theater shaken, weeping or talking about their need to become better Christians. Nobody came out wanting to talk about Mel Gibson’s father.

The Christian unwillingness to analyze this film showed in a more obvious way. The core audience, evangelicals and fundamentalists, is meticulous about literal reading of Scripture and at least stand-offish about Catholic interpretations. Yet they flocked to a film with a profoundly Catholic sensibility, based on the sometimes eccentric visions of a 19th century nun, and filled with free-wheeling scenes found nowhere in the Bible. You could argue that Gibson’s movie departed from the Gospels almost as much as Hollywood potboilers like The Robe.

But to audiences, this didn’t matter much. It was emotionally true to the Gospels, and audiences found that good enough.

There’s also a culture-war aspect to the film. Christians are very much aware that they are increasingly held in contempt by so many in the elites and the arts community. This treatment is everywhere, and runs from anti-Christian plays and movies to dung-and-porn-covered madonnas and attempts to degrade Christians symbols and rituals, such as the ridiculous and swishy Jesus figures in gay parades. After a year-long campaign to destroy Gibson’s movie before anybody had seen it, the New York Times ran a review of the film that compared “The Passion of the Christ” to a Simpsons episode. What are the odds that a Times reviewer would compare a serious black play to an episode of Amos and Andy?

Many Christians were clearly relieved that “The Passion of the Christ” wasn’t yet another attempt to trample their values. In this context, the hundreds of millions of dollars that “The Passion of the Christ” is ringing up amount to a large cultural statement. The columnist Mark Steyn nicely jabbed at the elites this way: “All those liberal columnists who champion the necessity of brave transgressive artists when it comes to giving us a horny Jesus (The Last Temptation of Christ), a gay Jesus (the Broadway play Corpus Christi), or a Jesus floating in the artist’s urine (“Piss Christ”) have finally discovered a Jesus it would be grossly irresponsible to show to the public.”

On anti-Semitism: a survey released last week by the Institute for Jewish and Community Research reports that Gibson’s film is not producing resentment against Jews and may actually be reducing anti-Semitism. According to the survey, 83 percent of people familiar with the film say it made them neither more likely nor less likely to blame Jews today for Jesus’s crucifixion. Two percent said they are more likely to blame Jews. Twelve percent said the film made them less likely to do so.

The numbers in the poll were small. It was done in early March when only 146 of the 1003 people surveyed had actually seen the film. But the results are an indicator that the dire predictions of a big wave of anti-Semitism were wrong. Some 40 to 50 million Americans have seen the film, and the mainstream press still seems to be awaiting an explosion of anti-Jewish feeling among Christians. It hasn’t arrived. I don’t think it will.